Abbas must apologise for the PLO’s 1976 massacres of Lebanese Christians

The world continues to give Palestinian leaders a free pass with regard what they have done in the past and what they are doing today, holding them responsible for nothing.

On this day (January 20th) in 1976, the horrific Damour Massacre occurred when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its allies massacred hundreds of Maronite Christians in the Lebanese town of Damour. To this day, despite the fact that their militias were responsible and that they could have stopped it, no Palestinian leader has felt the need to express regret over the atrocity, never mind apologise.

As described in this article from 1984, Palestinian militants aimed to and indeed were successful in their endeavours to set up a PLO mini-state in southern Lebanon in which they had free reign to launch “exceptionally bloody” attacks on northern Israel. Any community – such as Maronite Christians – who might be likely to demur to such a development had to be eliminated.

Damour was a Maronite Christian town about 20km south of Beirut on the Lebanese coast on the highway running south. Hence, for this reason it was of strategic importance and whoever held Damour had control of the main artery going towards the Israeli border. It was overrun by Palestinian militias and their Lebanese allies on January 20th 1976 and some 6-700 of its inhabitants were murdered, including many women and children. Women were raped by the militias who also bombarded churches where civilians had sought refuge

Was it retaliation? Really?

The massacre took place in the context of a series of tit-for-tat sectarian atrocities that had begun in April 1975 when Palestinian guerillas opened fire on a congregation of Christians at a church in east Beirut, killing 4. As the year progressed, the violence worsened and each retaliation from one side was “answered” with another massacre from the other side. In the first two weeks of January 1976, there had been attacks by Palestinians on Christian towns such as Jiyyeh, Kab Elias, Deir Jennine and Hoche Barada, resulting in the deaths of scores of people. 

Two days before the Damour Massacre, there had been a massacre of Muslims in the Karantina district of Beirut by Christian Phalangist forces and you may find articles claiming that what happened in Damour was in retaliation for what was done in Karantina. However, it needs to be pointed out that 9 days prior to the Karantina massacre, the PLO had already surrounded Damour and tried to murder one of the local priests. The slaughter in Damour didn’t start on January 20th. Dozens were killed when PLO militants infiltrated the town in the early hours of January 10th.

Arafat did nothing to stop the massacre

In the hours prior to that, as described in this article, the priest made several desperate calls to a local Muslim cleric and to various local political leaders but they could do nothing to help. The militias besieging the town were Palestinian, controlled only by Yasser Arafat and only Arafat had the power to stop them. The priest called Arafat’s headquarters and while he was fobbed off with certain assurances, they turned out to be worthless in the end. 

Scene from the massacre in Damour in January 1976 (Source: Medium.com)

The town remained in PLO hands for the following 6 years until it was liberated by Israeli forces following Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon in 1982 in response to PLO attacks on northern Israel. They found a town that had been completely emptied of its original inhabitants, and where Christian places of worship had been willfully desecrated, one having been used as a garage for repairing vehicles, another as a volleyball court. A Christian cemetery was also desecrated. In the years that followed, small numbers of the town’s original inhabitants have returned to live there.

World only cares about 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre

Don’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of the Damour Massacre before. It has been called Lebanon’s long-forgotten massacre. For obvious reasons, Palestinians don’t want to talk about it and would presumably rather that the horrific incident were consigned to the pages of history. Contrast that with Israel’s response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 where its forces were not involved in the killings. It set up the Kahan Commission that concluded that senior military figures (including the defense minister) should be sacked for failing to act to prevent the bloodshed – even though the massacres were carried out by Christian Phalangists.

This study by Fred Maroun (a Canadian-Lebanese journalist) shows that the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre gets a hugely disproportionate level of coverage in internet articles despite not being the worst of the massacres that occurred during the Lebanese civil war. Indeed, the Syrian army perpetrated a worse massacre in the same districts in 1985 but the world only seems to remember the one carried out in 1982.

Palestinians never held to be responsible for anything

Hence, no-one has ever challenged Palestinian leaders on their militias’ role in the slaughter at Damour and other such atrocities or asked them for an apology. It’s nothing short of extraordinary that when Yasser Arafat passed away in 2004, his role in the slaughter in Damour – or at the very least, his failure to act to prevent it – was ignored. 

This is just one more way in which the world continues to give Palestinian leaders a free pass with regard to what they have done in the past and what they are doing today, holding them responsible for nothing. It’s been 45 years since the Damour massacre and it’s long past time for this to end. Mahmoud Abbas must acknowledge the role that the PLO played in the Damour massacre and other atrocities against Maronite Christians and apologise for them. 

By Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh

Footnote: The Coalition of Concerned Christians has launched a petition calling on the Palestinian Authority to acknowledge its role in the Damour Massacre and to commit to a campaign of political and social reform. The Ireland Israel Alliance is a co-signatory to this petition which you can sign here if you have not done so already.

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